Thursday, February 18, 2021

Thought on Deferred Maintenance

As with the past few posts, this was first shared on Facebook.

Can we talk for a minute? Of course, I can only speak for myself.

Let’s talk about Texas.

No? Not talk about Texas? Okay, let’s talk about Kansas City, where we used to live.

We moved to Kansas City in 1994. That was a year after one of the worst floods in the city’s history. There were signs everywhere of the water damage. In the Country Club Plaza, an historic and high value shopping district, stores still showed where the Brush Creek had risen to more than three feet in first floor rooms, having completely flooded the basements below.

There were several matters that contributed to the floods, and especially to the Plaza area and also to working class residential neighborhoods downstream. One that was recognized by the time we arrived was that the storm drainage system and the sanitary sewer system were linked. When these were installed in the 1920’s and ‘30’s the idea was that if there were unusually heavy rains the sanitary system would be able to absorb some of the excess.

It’s hard to deny that for decades that had worked, or at least worked well enough. However, after the 1993 floods it was recognized that some important things had changed. Our standards about treating the stuff in our sanitary sewers had changed. Our water quality concerns about our storm runoff and other waters had changed. Most important, there were now tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people living in the Brush Creek drainage, many of them miles upstream of the Country Club Plaza, and quite a number of them across the state line in Kansas. All those roads, driveways, homes, and people were adding to the storm runoff and to the sewage that went into the system. The problem was similar all over Kansas City, although it was especially visible in the Plaza district and downstream.

So, when we moved to Kansas City, the City Council was thinking about how to address the issue. The concern, and for a majority the stopping point, was that it would require an investment of $40 million. (I may be a bit off, but that’s my memory.) So, it was talked about and talked about, and a few small tweaks were accomplished, but the systemic problem was never addressed.

Of course, as it was talked about, you could see one consequence of delay, and I bet you can guess what it was. The cost kept going up. They were still talking about it when we left Kansas City, and over those almost 25 years the cost had grown to $4 billion - 100 times the initial requirement, more or less. Now, I’m sure about the last figure; but even if I’m really wrong about the first figure and it was $400 million, that’s still 10 times the cost. And while the tweaks had helped the Country Club Plaza, there had still been bad storms and significant flooding in the Brush Creek drainage above and below. People still died and people still lost a lot of money to flood damage.

So, there’s a very clear monetary example of the real cost of deferred maintenance - of putting off hard and expensive stuff until “better times.” Too often, though, it doesn’t really seem to be about “better times.” It seems to be about leaders who don’t want responsibility for the hard decisions, especially when those decisions include taxing citizens.

I know, I know: perhaps you thought I was just going to stop with “spending money.” For good and ill, though, the money that governments have to do the jobs we want of them comes from taxes. Now, my wife will tell you that I’ve never seen a tax I didn’t like, which isn’t true; but do understand that paying taxes is one of the responsibilities of having “government... by the people,” alongside voting. Sometimes we find other terms like “user fees” to avoid calling them taxes; or tools like municipal bonds to put off, perhaps for decades, paying the taxes (but, how do you think those bonds are paid off when they become due?) And, yes, we might disagree on how broad the scope should be of what we want government to do. I will tell you I’m really glad when my town can plow my street when the snow is deep. I’m glad my water district has laid mains well below the freeze line and has the resources to respond quickly to a break.

Many, many of us make decisions to tend to matters and avoid deferred maintenance. We keep our cars serviced, and we keep our houses in repair, and we see doctors and dentists regularly. We do those things because we know problems caught early are cheaper than crises caught too late; and that problems prevented are cheaper still. So, why shouldn’t we not only support but expect our leaders to address problems early, including the expectation that we’ll be paying for them?

Of course, I can only speak for myself.

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